v.5 Remember, this section of the Sermon on the Mount, composed of three parts, of which our paragraph this morning is the second, is governed by the opening statement in 6:1: “be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them.”
The prayers in the synagogues were led by a man standing at the front, not unlike our congregational petitions. Prayer was not normally practiced on the street corners, but if one strictly observed the afternoon hour of prayer, he could time his movements to be at the most public place at the appropriate time. [Jeremias in France, 132]
Any minister, who prays publicly for a living, will tell you how strong is the tendency to use prayer in public as a means of impressing people with your piety. But prayer is to be communion with God not an exercise in self-love. [Morris, 139] Hypocrisy is a misuse of the purpose of prayer, turning it from the glory of God to the glory of self.
v.6 As we said last week, it is not enough simply to try not to be ostentatious. One must press hard in the opposite direction. Be alone when you pray. Make a point of doing it in secret so that only you and God will know your prayer. Jesus is not, of course, denying the corporate prayer of the church. But the man who studies to pray alone will know what prayer should be when it is offered in public. Philip Henry, Matthew Henry’s father, captures the Lord’s sense when he says, “There are two doors to be shut when we go to prayer; the door of our closet, that we may be secret; the door of our hearts, that we may be serious.” As in the first section the difference between the two ways of praying is seen in their reward: earthly and temporary in the first case, heavenly and eternal in the other.
v.8 Mechanical prayer, prayer performed as a religious duty so as to satisfy an obligation – prayer in which the saying of words is what matters, often the exact recital of the required words – is not true prayer. It mistakes the nature of prayer as “earnest and familiar talking with God,” as John Knox memorably defined it. If hypocrisy mistakes the purpose of prayer, mechanical verbosity mistakes the nature of prayer, making it a mere recitation of words, not communion with God. [Stott, 142] It is not to “many words” that God responds, but to a humble, honest heart.
Joseph Hart, in one of his poems, has the lines:
Prayer was appointed to convey
The blessing God designs to give.
We ought not to suppose that God needs our prayers or is acted upon by our prayers in some mechanical fashion. He is our Father and loves his children. And he loves to hear them come to him with their needs and open their hearts to him.
v.9 This is, remember, a model prayer for the Lord’s disciples. Only they can say “Our father…” And it is, in the context, a model for private prayer, but certainly can be a corporate prayer. All the first person pronouns are plural. The prayer begins where all Christian prayer must begin with the confession that we are speaking to the living God, the Almighty who dwells in heaven, and, at the same time, that this high God is known to us as our heavenly Father, he draws near to love and care for us his children. Transcendence and intimacy acknowledged in the same breath: “Our Father in heaven…”
v.10 “…on earth as it is in heaven” probably governs the previous three lines, not just the last. So we pray that God’s name would be revered, his kingdom come, and his will done on earth as it is in heaven.
To pray “your will be done” and to mean it is no small thing. It is an act of high and humble faith, as we learn when Jesus prayed that very prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane the night of his betrayal.
v.11 Three prayers for God’s glory are now balanced with three petitions for the disciples’ needs.
v.12 People sometimes wonder why some Christians say “Forgive us our trespasses or sins” and others “Forgive us our debts.” Well, Matthew has “debts,” a very common way of speaking of sins, but Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer in chapter 11 has “trespasses” or “sins.” The words mean the same thing but one’s way of saying the Lord’s Prayer depends simply upon which Gospel version one uses.
v.13 Having asked for deliverance from sins we have already committed, we now ask, in two clauses, for protection from future sinning. Either “evil” or “evil one” is possible and it makes little difference which one chooses.
The familiar doxology that closes our recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, Amen” almost certainly was not a part of the Lord’s original model prayer. It is missing from the best and earliest manuscripts of the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke. It would, however, have been universally assumed that some such doxology and an amen would have been added to finish the prayer. Such was the custom in Jewish prayer. The prayer would not have been offered without some such ending and so, rather quickly, the ending we are familiar with sneaked into the biblical text.
v.14 The point is not that forgiving others is the price of having your prayer heard. If you want something from God you have to do this something for him. The point is rather that to ask for forgiveness from God while being unwilling to extend forgiveness to others unmasks you as a hypocrite and renders your prayer an exercise in hypocrisy. God knows the heart that prays. “The spirit open to receive love is of necessity open to bestow love.” [Robinson in Morris, 147] Put 18:23-35 in the margin next to v. 15. That is the Lord’s parable of the servant who was forgiven his debt but did not then forgive debts owed to him. It is known as the “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant” and perfectly describes the attitude Jesus is condemning here. There is an echo of the Lord’s teaching here in Colossians 3:13: “forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
Now, in a preliminary way, there are several things to observe about the Lord’s instruction in prayer which comes in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. First, as you know, the Lord’s Prayer as a model prayer is found also in Luke 11. There the Lord gives it in answer to his disciples’ request for instruction in prayer. Some of them had been disciples of John the Baptist and he had given his disciples instruction in prayer, so they asked Jesus to do the same. So, clearly, the Lord’s Prayer is a model that Jesus gave to his disciples on more than one occasion. In Luke it is simply instruction in the content of prayer. It is followed by the Lord’s encouragement that we be bold and expectant when we pray to the Father. Here in the Sermon on the Mount the same Lord’s Prayer is used to make the Lord’s point that prayer should be offered sincerely, from the heart, should be an expression of real trust in the Lord and confidence in him. It is preceded and then followed by that same exhortation about sincerity and humility as prerequisites of true prayer. If you pray the right sort of things, he seems to be saying, be sure you pray them in the right spirit. Whether we are praying for the manifestation of God’s glory in the world or for our own very private and particular needs, to be true prayer it must be the real and heartfelt expression of our inner life. It cannot be a show for others or a religious performance for ourselves.
The second thing to observe is that the Lord’s Prayer, as a model prayer, has nothing in it that is either new or distinctive. It very closely resembles, in every one of its lines, Jewish prayers of the period. Indeed, in some cases it is a virtually verbatim repetition of those prayers. You can find, for example, “Our Father who is in heaven,” “Hallowed be his great name,” and “Do not bring me into the power of a sin, a temptation, a shame,” in the Jewish prayers. In other words, it was not the form of words that was the problem in Jewish prayers. Nor, as the use of “pagans” in v. 7 suggests, was their particular problem a running on and on, a repetitiveness, as if the length of a prayer was the index of its worth or of the piety of the one who was praying. The Jews knew that Ecclesiastes 5:2 taught them that when they went into the house of God and offered prayer to God their words should be few. Prayer can sometimes be nullified by what is said to God. Far more often, however, the problem is of another kind altogether. What is said is acceptable, could be in fact a fine prayer, but the way it is said, and the spirit in which it is said, nullify the prayer altogether.
Third, there are some very important lessons in the very nature of the Lord’s Prayer. The first three petitions take our attention away from ourselves to God, from our kingdom building to the building of his kingdom. In the second half of the prayer, we turn from the glorification of God’s name to the needs of our daily life. There is a philosophy of life expressed in the two great sections of this prayer: what Christians live for and how they live. They live for God and they live by dependence upon him. And as “daily” indicates in v. 11, we are to live each day, and day by day, in this spirit of active dependence upon the Lord. The hypocrite prays for himself not for God, he is building his own kingdom and doesn’t care about God’s. The error of the heathen, and the Christian who copies his error, is a mindlessness that attends to the multiplicity or the exact repetition of words and cares not for real personal communion with God, as children to a father. That by way of introduction.
Now here, once again, the Christian disciple comes face to face with the high demands of Christian holiness. We know very well, don’t we, how often and how easily we find ourselves in violation of both of these emphases. We pray for show as the hypocrites do and we pray without the engagement of our hearts as the heathen do. We cringe at how often we find ourselves in the baseball player who crosses himself before getting into the batter’s box or in the Muslim who bows down five times a day to say precisely the same words over and over again, as if we could not come with our own words and open our own hearts to our heavenly father. We reproach ourselves over and over again because we know all too well that our praying is not like Jacob’s at Peniel – we’ve never had our hip thrown out of joint wrestling with God – nor is it often like Hannah’s at the sanctuary – no one has ever thought we were drunk watching us pray, and it has rarely been at all like the Lord’s when sweat poured off him like great drops of blood. Our only comfort in admitting the truth about our own praying – how laborious it often is, how short, how contrived, how little of our true selves there is in it – is that such has been the struggle of all the saints through the ages.
Even St. Teresa admitted that as she began to pray she would turn over her hourglass, it took an hour for the sand to run out, and she tells us, with shame, in her autobiography how often she glanced at it, hoping that it would indicate that the hour was almost up. There is a passage in Andrew Bonar’s diary in which he tells of trying to spend a morning in his study in prayer. He finished the morning and concluded to himself that perhaps his way of praying should be many short bolts upward rather than long stretches of conversation with God at a time. It had been a struggle and he had not succeeded as he had hoped. Not many of us are nick-named “Camel Knees” as was James, the brother of the Lord, for the hours spent on his knees in prayer.
Prayer is the most spiritual thing we do – especially private prayer. There are no outward supports to keep us at it. And the more spiritual a work is, the more difficulty we have with it. It is a pure act of faith. Far too often we have had to admit that we should have prayed a prayer before we began our prayers and that prayer should have been, in C.S. Lewis’ words,
“May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that
I speak to.”
But, once again, our failures only point up the seriousness of the Lord’s summons and the determination with which we must seek once again to answer that summons. When the Lord said, a few verses back, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he was not at all suggesting that we would attain to that perfection, only that we must aspire to it, and do so all our lives. And the man and woman who aspire to perfect righteousness will get much closer to it than the man or woman who is content with much less. After all, it is not as if we Christians have not prayed in the way our Savior has taught us here, with real sincerity and the full engagement of our hearts. We know very well what it is like really to pray, even to forget the time because we find ourselves in real conversation with God.
Rabbi Duncan, the eccentric Presbyterian professor of Hebrew in 19th century Scotland, on one occasion began his class with prayer and the prayer continued until the bell rang announcing the end of the class period. Some of the students in that class remembered that prayer for the rest of their lives. When a friend took the liberty of chastening him for losing an entire class period of instruction, Duncan’s reply was simply, “Ah! when one thinks he has got in, he is not so ready to come out!” [David Brown, The Life of Rabbi Duncan, 362] Many of us know of what Duncan was speaking, even if in a lesser way.
And, unlike some who recite a formula of words over and over again, we know very well what it is like to conform our prayers to the reality of our lives and to speak to our heavenly Father out of our circumstances. Over these past several years we have been watching as we have never watched before, time and time again on news reports and in documentaries scores, sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands of Muslim men reciting their prayers out of doors or at a Mosque, bowing together toward Mecca, reciting the creed. And we have seen Roman Catholics with their rosaries. I found myself several years ago on a plane sitting next to a Catholic priest. He had his morning devotions next to me, reading his prayers from the Breviary, the book of daily readings and prayers. Then he got out his rosary, the string of beads used to count the number of times the prayer is said, either the Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary. He was on his way back from the farm in Conyers, Georgia where an apparition of the Virgin Mary was supposed to have been seen. We do not deny that a truly sincere worshipper might employ such a device as a rosary to be sure that he or she had prayed to God so many times or for so many things, perhaps as a way of increasing his or her discipline in the Christian life. But we also know that such practices have an inevitable tendency, and it is a tendency away from the sincere and living communion with God that is biblical prayer. We know very well that such repetition of a formula of words is not the prayer the Lord is recommending to us here and it is not the living prayer we see illustrated everywhere else in the Bible. In the Bible, in fact, for it is a simple fact to demonstrate, we never once see God’s people repeating over and over again a formulaic prayer. But we see them times without number raising their hearts to God and pleading with him concerning the particular circumstances of their lives.
But it is the tendency of our sinful hearts to make prayer formulaic and an exercise of outward life more than of the heart. That is why, after all, this is what becomes of prayer so often in Christian history. Already by the time of the Didache, a second century, perhaps as early as a late first century, summary of Christian teaching, Christians were being taught to say the Lord’s Prayer three times a day, probably, like some Jewish prayers, morning, afternoon, and evening. But that is not what the Lord is teaching us here and not what he is after. Here he says to us, and most emphatically, that it is the utterance of the heart, not the precise form of words, that is key to true, faithful, and prevailing prayer. What he wants is communion with his children not their performance of some religious duty.
Samuel Rutherford once even went so far as to say that “words are but the accidents of prayer.” He was writing to one of his correspondents a man of whom little is known, but he must have been an educated man, for “accidents” is a philosophical term. Rutherford was a highly educated man and his correspondent must have been as well. So both men would have understood this term “accident.” In its philosophical usage, “accident” does not mean “mishap” but rather anything that is not of the essence of a thing. Say you have a tree with large green leaves and a white trunk, say a sycamore tree. The green leaves and the white bark are “accidents”, for it would still be a tree if had another kind of leaf and another color of bark. The color of the bark and the size of the leaf are not what make it a tree; they are not essential to a tree being a tree. If you have a brown chair with upholstery, the color brown and the upholstery are “accidents” for it would be a chair if it were another color or was all wood or plastic and had no upholstery. “Words are but the accidents of prayer,” Rutherford says. That is, what is essential to true prayer is the state of mind and heart, the conviction of real dependence upon God, the trust and confidence in your heavenly Father, the longing for his blessing, the conviction that he is hearing you speak to him and real communion with God in conversation. That is what makes true prayer, not what particular words you use – some prayers, indeed, have no words, like an infant’s cries to his mother.
Parents know that theoretically it would be possible to provide for one’s children in an impersonal and distant way. One could hire it done and make sure that your children’s needs were met, though by someone who was deputed to act on your behalf. Or you yourself could provide meals by preparing them ahead of time, putting them in the freezer and leaving instructions with your children for when to take them out of the freezer, how long to cook them in the microwave, and so on. You could leave them money to buy what they need, set up an account with a local laundry to have their clothes cleaned and with a taxi company to get them to school each morning.
But every parent knows that the result would be an utterly different and debased and denatured relationship with our children and a deeply harmful one. We would not provide for our children that way even if we had the means to do so precisely because it is impersonal and does not express or foster love. We want them to come to us and ask. We want to provide for them directly and in answer to their appeals. In this way, and only in this way, is a true, healthy, life-giving parent-child relationship formed and nurtured. No father would be happy to have his son take everything and ask for nothing. It would be thankless. It would, it must make the son self-centered, unappreciative, and ungrateful. It would certainly teach him nothing about what it means to be a father and leave him utterly unprepared to be a father himself. He would not be humble and he would not be wise. He would not and could not learn to give to others as he had been given to. And he would have no sense of the kindness, the love, the generosity that loving parents bestow upon their children. He would not be moved by that love and shaped by his own sense of having been blessed by that love.
These lessons – which are the sum and substance of what it means to be a good, a worthy, a fruitful human being – must be made personal and actual in our lives by asking and receiving. That God has made it so in our relationship with him indicates that it could not become so in any other way. God’s love and goodness will only have their proper effect in our hearts and upon our lives if we receive them and experience them in communion with Him.
Again and again this same point is made in the Bible.
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Once again I will yield
to the plea of the house of Israel and do this for them…. Then
they will know that I am the Lord.” [Ezek. 36:37-38]
Or, once more, as Joseph Hart’s lines have it:
Prayer is appointed to convey
The blessings God intends to give.
It isn’t enough, it isn’t nearly enough, to know that blessings come from God. Our Christian faith requires that we received them from our heavenly Father’s hand precisely because we asked Him for them! When Luther said of the Reformation, “prayer must do the deed,” he meant that we must trust God to do the deed, that in faith we must ask him to do the deed and then wait upon his help and blessing. Well what is true of the Reformation is true of every part of every Christian’s life. Prayer must do the deed, true prayer will do the deed. That is because humble faith in the Lord and loving communion with our heavenly Father are the very essence of the Christian life. Real prayer is real life. That is what Charles Hodge meant when he said that no praying soul has ever been lost! Let us all recommit ourselves to the life of prayer; real prayer.
Have you no words? Ah! Think again!
Words flow apace when you complain
And fill your fellow-creature’s ear
With the sad tale of all your care.
Were half the breath thus vainly spent
To heaven in supplication sent,
Your cheerful song would oftener be,
‘Hear what the Lord has done for me.’